- Vani Hari’s blog, FoodBabe.com, and her “leading by example” style of food activism is an inspiration to a growing number of people not just in the US but around the world
- Eating organically while on the road can be a challenge. One solution is to travel with a cooler stocked with your own food, and asking the locals about organic food sources
- Vani’s achievements include making the food chain Chipotle list their ingredients, and label genetically engineered (GE) ingredients for transparency. The chain has also swapped out some GE ingredients for non-GMO alternatives
- Kraft, like many other companies, use toxic ingredients in the products made for the US market, while formulating the exact same products differently for other countries
- Simple ways to help educate and inspire others about healthier food choices include leading by example, asking questions about ingredients when eating out, and throwing all-organic dinner parties
Vani Hari, better known as “Food Babe,” is a blogger and food activist in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her blog, FoodBabe.com1, and her “leading by example” style of activism is an inspiration to a growing number of people not just in the US but around the world.
One of her most celebrated achievements is her participation in the Democratic National Convention, in which she drew massive media attention by standing up with a makeshift “Label GMOs” sign in the front row, during Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack’s speech.
This interview was taped a week after the March Against Monsanto where I participated in one of the local marches and had a chance to witness first-hand people working in the activist movement. It really helped me understand that there’s a widespread opportunity for virtually anyone to participate, get inspired, and to really make a difference.
Vani’s personal story is a perfect example of just how influential a single person can be, not just in educating others, but also in enticing major food chains to do the right thing and make positive changes.
The Painful ‘Birth’ of a Food Activist
Perhaps she was destined for the role of the activist, as her name actually means “voice” in Hindi. Indeed, a nationally ranked debater during her school years, Vani does not shy away from voicing her beliefs and sharing her ideals, and there’s little doubt the world is becoming better for it.
“Shortly after college, realizing that debate wasn’t really going to get me a job, I ended up switching my major to computer science and did what everybody else did. I entered the rat race,” she says.
“I got picked up by one of the top consulting firms in the country… managing large-scale projects, mergers, acquisitions, and integration work. I was travelling Sunday through Thursday, and quickly, at the age of 22 to 23 years old, I became really sick…
It was that life-changing moment that I realized, ‘Wait a minute, I gained 25 to 30 pounds within a three-month period, and then I had appendicitis?’ There’s something seriously wrong with what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been eating. What’s in the food, and what caused my body to be so out of whack?
Everyone says appendicitis is this random occurrence… But I don’t think it’s random, because it’s definitely related to your digestive system. And I was overloading my digestive system with tons of toxins.”
So, when she was 22, Vani made the decision to make her health her number one priority, vowing not to let work get in the way. By doing her own homework, she quickly realized that, first of all, not all calories are created equal—a concept clearly described by Dr. Robert Lustig, who states that fructose is “isocaloric but not isometabolic.”
This means you can have the same amount of calories from fructose or glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, but the metabolic effect will be entirely different despite the identical calorie count. This is largely because different nutrients provoke different hormonal responses, and those hormonal responses determine, among other things, how much fat you accumulate.
She also realized that not only are the vast majority of American food products loaded with toxic ingredients, from pesticides like glyphosate to artificial additivesbanned in many other countries, the food she was eating also fell short in terms of healthful nutrients—especially healthy fats like saturated fat.
“I’d been duped by the food industry,” she says. “I thought that eating a six-gram fat or less; 250-calorie or less Subway sandwich was healthy for me. I didn’t realize that the nine-grain bread had over 50 ingredients, with one ingredient that’s banned in Singapore. If you get caught using it, you get fined 450,000 dollars. I didn’t know that information. I ate those things because of the calories.
I thought, ‘Oh, look at all these vegetables inside.’ But I didn’t realize that the jalapenos have been dipped in petroleum-based dyes: Yellow #5 and Yellow #6. I didn’t realize that all of these buildups of chemicals in my body were causing these issues. And it wasn’t just appendicitis. I had asthma and allergies growing up. I was on three or four asthma medications… I had to see the doctor on a very frequent basis, even put on steroids to control my asthma. Now I have zero asthma. I’m on zero medications right now.”
The Power of One
Her corporate work, which involved loads of travel, forced her to perfect the art of eating organically while on the road—a feat that can be quite challenging. Her solution was to travel with a cooler stocked with her own food, and looking for organic food sources in the various cities she traveled to regularly. Spurred on by friends and coworkers who wanted to learn more, she started blogging about her discoveries in 2011. The following story is a potent example of just how influential a blogger can be:
“One day, I saw this frozen yogurt company at the mall, and their sign said, ‘Organic tastes better.’ I thought, ‘Oh, organic frozen yogurt at the mall. This is fabulous!’ I went in and asked for the ingredients, and they couldn’t give them to me. I went through my same investigative research that I developed in high school and tried to find out exactly what was in the ingredients.
I found out that they were using a little bit of organic milk, but then they were adding a slew of other chemicals, including trans fat and Blue #1 and Blue #2 to color my favorite flavor that I thought was organic… I started writing about that. It went viral. This was a local so-called organic yogurt company [with] about 30 or 40 stores. The CEO wrote me a letter, and they took down the signs. I said right then, ‘Wait a minute, hold on. I have this power as a blogger. I have this power as an activist to change the food system. If I can get a yogurt company to take down a sign, what else can I do?’”
This was the beginning of a series called “Food Babe Investigates,” where she digs deeply into the products sold by major food companies, such as Starbucks, Subway, and Chipotle. The latter resulted in another “one-woman victory” for Vani. Chipotle did not have a list of ingredients on their menus or website, and the corporate headquarters refused to supply her with one when she contacted them directly2.
“I said, ‘But your label says ‘Food with Integrity.’ How am I going to know that it’s food with integrity if I can’t know the ingredients and I can’t read them for myself?’” she says.
Shortly after her article appeared on her blog, Chipotle called her. The chain recently made the decision to not only release the lists of ingredients, but also started labeling genetically engineered (GE) ingredients for full transparency. They’ve also swapped out some of the GE ingredients, such as soybean oil, replacing it with rice bran oil.
Food Babe Takes on Kraft
These successes inspired her to take on Kraft, one of the biggest food corporations in America. Kraft, like many other companies, uses toxic ingredients in the products made for the US market, while formulating the exact same products differently for other countries. It’s quite eye-opening to compare the labels of the same food sold in the US compared to the exact same food sold in, say, the UK.
“For example, McDonalds French fries here in the United States are made with genetically engineered ingredients, trans fat oils that clog the heart (people say you shouldn’t even have 40 calories of that a day and that it increases your risk of heart disease by 23 percent), and they have this ingredient that is the key ingredient in Silly Putty to prevent the foaming of the oil.
In the UK, they have the exact same French fry. It’s made with basic ingredients: sunflower oil, potatoes, salt (actually, they add the salt after they cook it, so you control the salt), and a little dextrose, which is sugar. Completely different ingredient list, the same exact product. The same goes for Betty Crocker cake mix,” she says.
Clearly, food companies have the capacity to simply switch over to selling the same formulations in the US as they do in other countries. But they consciously choose, depending on the market, what is the most economical and profitable approach to use. In this case, Americans get the synthetic additives because it’s cheaper to make and we don’t demand “the good stuff.” Many other countries also seem to have more health conscious regulators who actually have a modicum of concern for their citizens’ welfare.
“Exactly. I found out that they did this for Kraft macaroni and cheese,” she says. “They actually took out two petroleum-based dyes [from the European version] because they didn’t want to put a label on their product that says, “May cause adverse effects on activity and attention in children.
The European version of Kraft macaroni and cheese has paprika and beta-carotene, but the one here [in the US] has Yellow #5 and Yellow #6. Attention deficit disorder, autism, and all of these things linked to hyperactivity disorder have increased dramatically in the United States. Nobody’s really looking at the chemicals, and kids everywhere are eating this Mac & Cheese. It’s really not fair that Kraft figured out that this ingredient was causing harm—because they found out when the Europeans told them: “You’re going to have to put this label on there, or you’re going to have to reformulate it.” They reformulated it, so it’s not like we’re asking them to reinvent the wheel.”
Why Won’t Kraft Give American Kids a Safer Mac & Cheese?
To address the issue and raise awareness, Vani started a Change.org petition3 asking Kraft to remove artificial dyes from American Mac & Cheese. The petition went viral, collecting more than 200,000 signatures within the first couple of days. A month later, she hand-delivered about 270,000 signatures to Kraft’s Chicago headquarters. Yet to this day, Kraft has not responded to the petition that has gathered 336,000 signatures as of this writing, and the company has not in any way indicated that it’s considering changing their formulation to protect American children from the well-known harms of these ingredients… Instead, Kraft responded by stating that:
“We carefully follow the laws and regulations in the countries where our products are sold. So in the US, we only use colors that are approved and deemed safe for food use by the Food and Drug Administration.”
Again, Kraft clearly knows the ingredients in question have been linked to adverse effects on activity and attention in children because regulators in Europe have informed them of this. The moral thing would be to acknowledge the discrepancy and apply the precautionary principle. Just because the FDA says it’s okay doesn’t mean they have to use those ingredients!
Still, there is hope. By inspiring people to collectively act together, our voices can be heard, because we clearly outnumber the people running these food companies. The challenge is that we’re not effectively organized to let them know our views and understand the intention of those views. Yet this is the transformative power that we have, and Vani is an excellent example of how we can make a difference.
Americans are Denied Fundamental Right to Make Informed Food Choices
As I’ve stated on many occasions, over 90 percent of processed foods sold in the US contain genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy. These two ingredients are so pervasive they’re in foods you’d never expect, including baby food and condiments of every sort.
“They can actually mimic other real food ingredients using corn and soy,” Vani says. “The majority of the food that I’d been eating was either GE corn or soy. No wonder my entire body was acidic, not alkaline, and was completely overrun with the lack of nutrition, because I was getting my nutrition from one or two ingredients. I wasn’t getting my nutrition from kale, superfoods, and good sources of nutrition.”
And then I found out that not only is it in the 90 percent of the processed foods, it’s in 90 percent of the restaurants. It’s in almost all foods in America, but not in other countries. They require a label in other countries. Over 65 countries right now require some type of regulation [on GMOs]. And the United States does not. Our fundamental rights are being denied right now as Americans.”
Indeed, Monsanto has repeatedly demonstrated its cleverness, sophistication, and overwhelmingly successful lobbying efforts, to prevent GMO labeling in the US and to keep Americans in the dark about what we’re eating. Monsanto now controls virtually every single federal regulatory agency that has governance over their ability to do their business. They’ve effectively circumvented all the possibilities of regulating them through the federal process.
That’s why we’re so excited that last year’s ballot initiative in California was able to act as such a tremendous springboard to catapult Americans into greater awareness. We’re now seeing this explosion of states taking local measures to counteract the willful ineptitude and corruption within our federal agencies. So although it looked like we lost, and Monsanto undoubtedly uncorked quite a few bottles of champagne when Prop 37 failed, I believe we actually won the war despite losing that battle. Prop 37 catalyzed a tremendous amount of interest and activism that has since inspired a whole network of grassroots action.
“I think voting with your dollars is such a powerful movement,” Vani says. “I love seeing people starting to boycott Kraft in general, because they haven’t listened to over 336,000 people on our petition [at the time of this writing].”
How Vani Made Headlines at 2012 Democratic National Convention
Vani became a delegate for North Carolina at the 2012 Democratic National Convention on the platform of genetically engineered foods. She’d previously helped get President Obama elected in 2008, and as you may recall, in 2007 Obama promised to label genetically engineered foods should he get into the White House.
Vani was outraged to realize that not one single activist group was represented at the Democratic National Convention. So, just as Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture and staunch Monsanto proponent, was about to speak, she made a makeshift sign out of her program leaflet by writing on it with her lipstick. “LABEL GMO’S” and then she stood up, in the front row, holding her sign high as Vilsack took to the podium.
“Within 20 seconds cameras besieged me,” she says. “I mean, completely took the focus off of his speech and completely besieged me. I was on C-SPAN, and people were writing on my Facebook page. ‘Oh, my God! Food Babe’s protesting at the Democratic National Convention.’ It was crazy.
My whole delegation behind me who were elected from other districts and who hadn’t heard my spiel during my district run were all confused. They’re like, ‘What is she doing? She’s causing a ruckus here?…’ It wasn’t until all of that commotion was of over that I realized the impact of what I did that day: I educated my entire delegation… People started reading about this labeling issue because the reporters were capturing it and it was being broadcasted across the nation. …. I got a personal security guard for the rest of the convention dedicated to me. He gave me a really hard time for the rest of the convention and I was banished to the back.”
The theme of last year’s Democratic Convention was “Moving Forward.” But how can we move forward as a country when our farm policy and our food policy are so backward and American citizens are getting increasingly ill from the food we eat, the water we drink, and pollutants in our immediate environment?
“The bottom line is that food is medicine. If our food is sick, we’re going to be sick,” she says.
What Can YOU Do to Create Change?
Here are a few of Vani’s tips to start becoming a food activist, starting with leading by example. Truly, one of the most powerful ways to inspire others to change is to demonstrate your beliefs by walking the talk and being the healthiest, happiest, most empowered version of yourself that you can be. This way, when people ask how you lost all that weight, or how you got that fabulous complexion, or how you’re able to keep your energy levels up all day without two pots of coffee, you can simply share what you know rather than preach to those who might not be open to hearing what you have to say.
“It’s really important for all of us – the people who are reading the blogs, participating, and caring about what they put in their food – to tell their friends and family about it. Do it from a loving, giving standpoint, not from a critical or judgmental standpoint,” Vani says
Other tips for cleaning up your own diet and reaching out to others to share what you’ve learned include:
- Figure out healthy replacement foods. “I think that’s one of the questions I get on the blog the most: ‘Food Babe, you’re taking away all my food. If I can’t eat all this stuff, what can I eat instead?’” she says. Rest assured, while it may not be immediately obvious for people who have grown up relying on ready-made, pre-packaged foods and snacks, you can replace those foods with something equally satisfying that will support, rather than wreck, your health.
- Swap out your local grocer. Swapping out your local grocery store for a natural health food store is one way that can help you find better replacement foods, since many of health food stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare do not allow certain ingredients to begin with. Also, start shopping at the farmer’s market, and eliminate processed foods from your diet.
- Shop online. “That has been one of the most fascinating things to me: if I can’t find an ingredient in my town, I can usually get in on the Internet,” she says
- When eating out, ask your server about ingredients, such as: “Are you using any corn or soybean oil in these products that you’re feeding me today? My salad dressing, does it have soybean or corn oil?” You can open the conversation up in a positive way by asking questions about the foods you’re about to order at a time when everyone’s looking at ingredients anyway.
- Throw organic dinner parties. “Having people come over to your house and trying organic food has really helped inspire my friends to realize that you can eat really healthy and have organic food that tastes great,” Vani says. It’s also a great way to, again, lead by example and show how to cook without processed foods and questionable ingredients.
‘Pay the Farmer, or Pay the Hospital’
Vani brings up a point that I too have shared on countless occasions, which is that you can either spend your money on healthy foods now, or you can spend it on medical bills down the road. According to Vani:
“There’s this great young individual Birke Baehr, a 14-year-old genius who wants to be a farmer. He’s spreading his message. He came up with that. He says, “You can either pay the farmer, or you can pay the hospital.
I think people, when they start to eliminate processed foods, eliminate GMOs, buy organic food, eliminate the toxins and the chemicals in their food, and start feeling well… the people around them are going to say, ‘I want some of that. I want to feel like that person. Wow, look at her. Look at all the energy. And look what she’s giving back to the world.’ There is no way I would be able to have become a consultant, live that lifestyle, and started a blog, had I not been taking care of myself 100 percent. There’s no way I would have been able to give back to society that way. I wouldn’t be able to do it.
I think feeling good should be everyone’s kind of number one priority in life. What’s the point of living life, traveling the world, and doing things that you want to do, if you can’t feel good?
As someone who has spent the greater portion of my adult life making my health a priority in my life, I cannot think of anything that could possibly compete with feeling good and aging well. What’s your take?
Keep Fighting for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods
While California Prop. 37 failed to pass last November by a very narrow margin, the fight for GMO labeling is far from over. The field-of-play has now moved to the state of Washington, where the people’s initiative 522, “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” will require food sold in retail outlets to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients.
Remember, as with CA Prop. 37, they need support of people like YOU to succeed. Prop. 37 failed with a very narrow margin simply because we didn’t have the funds to counter the massive ad campaigns created by the No on 37 camp, led by Monsanto and other major food companies. Let’s not allow Monsanto and its allies to confuse and mislead the people of Washington and Vermont as they did in California. So please, I urge you to get involved and help in any way you can.
- No matter where you live in the United States, please donate money to these labeling efforts through the Organic Consumers Fund.
- Sign up to learn more about how you can get involved by visiting Yeson522.com!
- For timely updates on issues relating to these and other labeling initiatives, please join the Organic Consumers Association on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter.
- Talk to organic producers and stores and ask them to actively support the Washington initiative.